It Gets Better: The Evolution of "Queer TV"
By Rachel EdelmanJuly 21, 2014
IN 2000, three years before anti-sodomy laws were struck down in Lawrence v. Texas, Queer As Folk premiered on Showtime. At the time, The New York Times’ Caryn James wrote, “never before has a mainstream American series assumed the perspective of gay characters, making no concessions to straight viewers.” Flipping the dominant narrative was validating for gay viewers, othering for straight. The new genre of queer TV gave American viewers an outsider’s perspective that, over the last decade and a half, evolved to adeptly dissect social structures of race and class.
When Showtime first adapted Queer As Folk from a British miniseries, Jerry Offsay, then the network’s programming president, proclaimed it would be “the sexiest, edgiest series to premiere on any network in America.” Perhaps he was going for a jab at HBO, producer of explicit hetero dramas like Oz. Queer As Folk aimed to shock, but it accompanied that shock with corny dialogue and flat characters. Its four main characters hardly had a chance to distinguish themselves from archetypes of flamers and sex gods, never mind that they were all white. It bombarded its audience with extended techno-scored sex scenes that made most critics blush while men in steam baths urged each other to “rise to the occasion.” Still, in the face of an antagonistic political climate, Queer As Folk alienated a large portion of its potential viewing audience and found success.
A question of quality remained. Showtime took pride building its brand on Queer As Folk’s groaning male lovers and flashy sound effects. More soap opera than primetime drama, one letter-to-the-editor described the series as “exploitive rather than merely explicit, salacious rather than sympathetic and pandering instead of persuasive.” And if this was the case, could an audience relate to such characters enough for the show to have a social impact?
It’s said that when gay rights attorney Paul Smith argued before the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas, he packed the courtroom with prominent gay Washingtonians, people who the justices knew and respected. He forced the justices to stare down the people who they knew whose basic right to privacy was at stake. Queer As Folk executed a similar rout of sympathetic audiences. If straight viewers were intrigued enough to watch the show, they witnessed gay men experiencing sexual pleasure at the hands of other men. While the characters were boxed in, at least they were present on TV and presented from a gay perspective.
In 2005, Showtime premiered The L Word, a show focused on a group of lesbians in Los Angeles. The show was more diverse and far more realistic than Queer As Folk. It presented powerful women who own businesses, run museums, make music and films. Sex was an important part of their lives, but so were their career and family ambitions. It flaunted the patriarchy and invited its viewers to feel more of the otherness that its characters experienced.
While the women in The L Word live in gay-friendly West Hollywood, they face the same typically American racial issues. As partners Tina and Bette decide to conceive via artificial insemination, white Tina expresses her anxiety about mothering a biracial baby via a black donor. “I don’t feel qualified to be the mother of a child who’s half African-American,” she says to her biracial partner. “On top of having two moms, that’s a lot of otherness to put on one child.” In 2005, that acknowledgment was tantamount to indecent exposure.
Still, The L Word erects barriers between gay and straight worlds. In the first season, writer Jenny, who will eventually discover her lesbian sexuality, asks her boyfriend’s permission to go out in a beseeching way that would make any feminist turn up her nose. In season three, Tina dates a homophobic man whose straight friends make jokes about lesbians, lesbians like her, having kids. She doesn’t dump him for months. Why? It seems that part of her wants to belong to a mainstream, to make life a little less marginalized for her and her daughter. But for those who don’t belong there, the straight world is boring, it’s uptight, and it’s uncomfortable.
In a recent interview, actor and comedian Lea DeLaria (Big Boo on Orange Is the New Black), a self-described “dyke,” told BuzzFeed, “We cannot forget where we came from. We cannot forget our history. And butch dykes and nelly faggots, that’s where we came from.” DeLaria, along with others who defy conventional gender presentation, are the marginalized forebears of today’s rapidly mainstreaming gay culture. The stereotypes that pervaded early queer TV paved the way for the dynamic portrayals of gay characters we see today. And their self-aware otherness allows them to access a richer critique of class and race.
After The L Word ended in 2009, queer TV vanished for a few years. Gay characters made it into shows like Modern Family, but they were largely essentialized and portrayed through a hetero lens. Since 2013, though, a flood of challenging new series have premiered to critical acclaim. There’s the aforementioned Orange Is the New Black, along with HBO’s Looking and ABC Family’s surprisingly candid The Fosters. Each one chips off a further bit of social inhibition, challenging assumptions about race and class from a marginalized queer perspective.
Some viewers might call Looking an update on Queer As Folk, but that description is superficial at best. Although it also focuses on a group of gay men (this time in San Francisco), Looking’s perspective is radically different from Queer As Folk. Rather than swooping in for cartoonish effects, the camera cuts close to the actors’ faces for intimate scenes with few artificial sounds or lights. Each shot is cast in shadow, shrouding the struggle between public and private lives in an age of diminishing gay marginalization.
While Queer As Folk’s characters express constant insecurity about their looks, Looking focuses more on emotional concerns and age anxiety. It’s all shot with such minimalism that there’s no spectacle when race and class come to the forefront of relationships. Looking is less concerned with defining gay culture and more focused on contextualizing it in post-recession, tech-booming San Francisco.
Looking’s protagonist, Patrick, is an awkward white tech geek. He works in game development; he has no personal experience with poverty or racism. So when he begins dating Richie, a Mexican barber, he’s ignorant about his privileged assumptions. He asks microaggresive questions about Richie’s religious pendants and visits to a fortune-telling señora. While Patrick is outside his parents’ version of the mainstream because he’s gay, his own otherness doesn’t translate to understanding Richie’s. When Patrick’s Cuban best friend meets Richie, he scorns his Mexican traditions and talks down to him in Spanish, without subtitles. The audience can see what’s happening, and while such frank confrontation of race and class privilege is rare, Looking plays it so straight-on that the audience hardly has a chance to balk.
For the most part, privilege is something called out on Twitter; it’s rarely something addressed on TV. In exposing the trappings of race and class privilege, Looking has an ally in Orange Is the New Black. In Netflix’s breakout hit, the main thrust is prison’s checking and reinforcement of privilege. But can Orange Is the New Black be called a queer show? It doesn’t focus only on gay characters, but it presents othered points of view. What value would queer TV have if it didn’t evolve with the times that have brought gay culture into the mainstream?
Whatever genre it fits into, Orange Is the New Black offers dynamic portrayals of poor black and Hispanic women, as well as queer ones. It “artfully balances individual decision-making, life circumstances, and a deep sense of tragedy and inevitability” in the inmates’ lives, writes Maurice Chammah. So much of what each woman is afforded in prison is based on what kind of background she comes from. As Piper, the white, bisexual protagonist, navigates prison, she’s afforded privileges the black and Hispanic inmates couldn’t dream of. She acknowledges it and she takes advantage anyway. Is she right to ask for furlough when her grandmother is sick, even though others’ requests to visit dying parents have been denied? When she’s granted the furlough and receives the ire of other inmates, she unsuccessfully tries to give it back. But casting off her privilege is impossible; she’s an outcast among the inmates for being favored by the system.
The structural critique of incarceration in Orange Is the New Black shares common values with another genre-bender, The Fosters. Queer TV reaches its most normalized with lesbian couple Stef and Lena and their multicultural family of biological, adopted, and foster children. The series displays impressive candor when dealing with issues of sex and prejudice, not to mention the race issues inherent in its multicultural family dynamics. It fits neatly into the space American has carved out for gay families over the last decade, sticking closely to liberal family values while seeming to implore a larger viewing audience to take note, too.
At the same time, The Fosters shows the limits to personal agency in any culture. The family relies on the good will of social services to stay together. There’s a distinct lack of recourse against an unjust system. Stef and Lena’s foster kids have survived years of abuse, and the effects of such abuse linger. As structures of specifically queer oppression fall, The Fosters turns its critical lens to deconstructing greater structures of inequality. Its historically marginalized family takes risks to fight for each other against the system.
Now that DOMA is done and gay is closing in on normal, might queer TV’s interrogation of inequality serve as a model for other genres? Could a big-budget fantasy show like Game of Thrones address colonialism and white supremacy? Could network primetime include a sitcom that addresses racism? TV could be on the cusp of a new era of social consciousness. If nothing so revolutionary, 2014’s queer TV confirms a legacy of bearing witness to invisible yet formative experiences of oppression.
Rachel Edelman writes poems and essays. She grew up in Memphis, TN and lives in the West.
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